“Red sixty-three, red sixty-three, hutt-hutt!” The ball snapped into my hands and I took a step back, then another, searching for my mark headed down the field.
I spotted him open and let the ball fly, slicing a perfect spiral through the air, falling right into Mason’s hands. He skipped into the end zone whooping and cheering.
“Damn, you are on fire today!” he called down the field, jogging back for the next line-up. Not a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL could make eighty-yard passes that clean, but then not a lot of wide receivers could catch them like that, either. My bear roared victoriously at our achievement.
“Not so bad yourself,” I said, smacking Mason on the back of the helmet.
“When you two are done sucking each other off, can we do some running drills?” Kingston, the running back of our team and my other best friend, asked.
“Don’t let coach hear you say shit like that,” I grumbled, eying the sidelines. Our coach was old school and one hundred percent hard ass. If he heard Kingston wanting to do running plays, he’d have us all running the length of the whole damn field until we collapsed.
“Play clock’s running down dickheads,” Coach called from the sidelines. Even in practice he acts like it’s game day. But it’s that kind of commitment and dedication to the sport that got us to the big game nearly undefeated.
I said nearly because we lost once the whole season. And the team we lost to is the same team we’d be playing in the Championship.
“Huddle up,” I called to the team, relaying the play to them. We broke and lined up on the line of scrimmage again.
“Hutt!” The ball snapped, I took my three jogging steps back, found Kingston a couple feet away and tossed it right into his grip. It didn’t even really count as a pass at under a yard, but then it was my buddy’s turn to show off and he took off like a rocket, dodging tackles and sprinting over to the sidelines where he had a clear shot all the way to the end zone.
“Fuck yeah!” Mason cheered from half-way down the field.
We were unstoppable. That one loss to the Titans was enough to light a fire under us as a team. It made us more determined than ever to show the world what we were made of. To show them that we were the very best.
“All right, let’s call it a day. Don’t want to wear you pansies out before the big game,” Coach said.
We jogged off to the side of the field as a unit, clapping each other on the backs, muttering ‘good practice’ to one another.
Kingston and Mason joined me at the water cooler, all three of us looking out over the perfect expanse of lush green turf, the empty stadium around us. I didn’t know about them, but I was imagining those stands packed to the brim with spectators. That’s when I performed my best. With a thousand eyes on me, the whole stadium thrumming and pulsing with a single heartbeat. It was what I lived for.
“Think we’ve got a shot against the Titans?” Mason asked, chugging a paper cup full of water, mopping sweat off his forehead.
“I think we’ve got more than a fucking shot,” I said as my bear growled at such question.
“You think?” said Kingston. “They kicked our asses the last time we played them and that was only a month ago. You think we’ve improved that much?”
I shrugged. “How many hundreds of hours of game footage have you watched?” I asked.
Then I turned to Mason. “How many nights have you stayed up memorizing routes and play calls?”
“All right, all right, we get it,” said Kingston, holding up his hands defensively. “You’re the boss and you’ve got this under control.”
“Damn right I do.”
That was how it had to be. I was the quarterback, the captain of the team, the leader and who everyone looked to for morale. I couldn’t show any weakness. I couldn’t show any doubt or apprehension. I had to be a rock. Unmovable, unshakable, unyielding.
“What’s this about you being the boss?” Coach asked from right behind me. I turned, plastering on a charming grin.
“Pretty good practice today, eh Coach?”
He grumbled. “Maybe for the peewees, son. You’re not going to beat the Titans with that cocky attitude of yours.”
“Oh, come on Coach. We’re fifteen and one the whole season, don’t we deserve some celebrating?” Mason asked. I winced, turning away to get another water. I already knew the answer. Because while these assholes were out partying and celebrating I was spending untold hours with the crotchety old coach doing everything in my power to make us a Championship team, despite the loud desire of my bear for me to let a little loose here and there.
“Season’s not over yet, Fields,” Coach grumbled. “And with an attitude like that you’ll be lucky if you get another.”
He turned to me with a stern look. “Keep these two in line, Elliott.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, knowing better than to say anything else.
As Coach walked away, the other two looked at me with growing smirks. “What?” I asked as my bear growled.
“Is it hard?” Mason asked.
I knew he was setting me up, but he and Kingston were already chuckling to themselves, so it was too late anyway. “What?”
“Shoving that stick so far up your ass?”
“How do you run with it like that?” Kingston added, both of them laughing at my expense.
“Fuck both of you. You act like I’m the only one on this fucking team that wants a ring.”
They exchanged a look and then Mason looked a little remorseful. “Nah, man. We’re just busting your balls. Everyone on this team knows you work four times as hard as anyone else. Just think you should lighten up is all.”
“I’ll lighten up after the Championship,” I said, brushing them off.
“Too much stress and you won’t perform as well,” Kingston said. I sent him a sideways glance.
“I assure you, my performance isn’t lacking. In any arena.”
“Spare me the details,” he groaned, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly. But it was all in good fun. It always was with these guys. They’d been my two best friends since we started college, inseparable from that very first practice when we nearly came to blows.
But honestly, I’ve found in life that a lot of the best friendships start out with a brawl, or close to it. People that are alike, that have strong convictions and personalities, are bound to clash at first.
But like Kingston, Mason, and me, sometimes, you discovered that the person you hated at first was actually more like a brother to you.
We’d gotten through three years of college together and now that we are in our senior year and had our sights on getting drafted, we all expected to be going our separate ways, but Coach had other plans.
Because he’d seen how we all worked together, as a unit, thinking like we all shared a brain, and he saw the value in that. He saw an opportunity. He hoped to use his connections with a few coaches to pull for us to stay together. He knew what value the three of us brought to a team over just one.
And after three years of training and building up the program at Colgate, our time to shine had finally come. The three musketeers — such a clever name we came up with for ourselves, I know — were going to the big times. We were going to be nationally known soon.
As long as we didn’t blow it by being overly cocky.
“Doubt there are any details to spare,” Mason said, elbowing me in the ribs. “Ryder’s been too focused on studying to even remember what a pussy looks like.”
“It is true?” Kingston asked, his eyes going wide with false alarm. “Is the great Ryder Elliott having a dry spell?”
“I’ve just been busy,” I grumbled, looking around to make sure no one else on the team was in ear shot. My bear roared as I said it, tired of me making excuses for not satisfying my primal needs. Our team wasn’t just about the game, we were a clan, and the team captain’s efficacy was often directly correlated to his perceived virility and sexual prowess. If my teammates heard I’ve been eschewing the fairer sex to get in more time with the game footage, they might start wondering if I’ve got doubts about us as a whole. Why else would I be putting in all those hours unless I didn’t think we were good enough?
Those are the kinds of things that can ruin a team’s morale and destroy our hopes of winning the big game. And the things I needed to keep a tight lid on because neither of my friends really understood what it was like to be in my position with my responsibility. It was easy for them to fuck around and have fun all the time, but one of us needed to have some damn focus.
“I’ve never known you to be too busy for a quick fuck,” Mason said. “You sure your dick’s all right?”
My bear growled at his challenge. I reached for the buckle on my pants. “You really want me to whip it out to show you?”
“Fields!” Coach barked. “You’re getting soft, boy. Hit the gym. You too, Rivers. Maybe if you spent more time at the gym and less time hunting Elliott wouldn’t have to carry this whole sorry team.”
They both grinned at me. “Got Coach fighting your battles now, do you?” asked Kingston.
My hand balled into a fist at my side, but I unclenched it with an exhale. Now wasn’t the time. I could be pissed at them and fight them and chew them out later. After the Championship. But until then, I needed to keep morale high and everyone happy.
“Better Coach than my baby sister,” I sneered back, bringing up ancient history because I had nothing else.
“Low blow,” Mason winced.
Last year, our junior year, Kingston had made some piss poor decisions and found himself in front of the Student Conduct Board, expulsion hanging over his head. Mason and I were with the team, out of state playing a game while Kingston had his trial, so neither of us knew from first-hand experience, but from what we’d been told, his younger sister — still a high schooler at the time — drove the four hours to our school to defend her brother in front of the whole board. Kingston’s never been all that great at talking, and even worse at talking his way out of stuff — something that was always more in my wheelhouse — so he’d been convinced when he found out about the hearing that that was it for him. That he was going to get expelled, lose his two best friends, and his future.
But his baby sister apparently got all the talking abilities in the family because she talked the board into not only keeping Kingston on the roster, but even lifting his football suspension so he could come back the next game.
I’d never even met her, but the girl was a miracle worker.
And we’d never let him live down that his little sister had to bail him out of trouble.
Kingston didn’t seem that upset though. He just shrugged and nudged Mason on the shoulder. “Come on man, you heard Coach. Let’s hit the gym.”
Mason turned to me and lifted his eyebrows hopefully. “You coming, man?”
I sighed, shaking my head. “Nah, I’ve got some other stuff to take care of,” I said, missing the days when the three of us could hang out carefree. It had been years. Ever since we turned pro, I’ve just gotten more and more serious about winning. It was all that mattered to me and I’d do anything to make it happen.
And I was so close I could taste it. Just one game. That’s all that was between me and everything I’d dreamed of my whole life. One game. Four quarters of fifteen minutes each. And once I got through that, I’d want for nothing. Everything would be perfect.